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University’s ‘digital sandpit’ shows how climate change affects human life

A TEAM at the University of Bradford has mixed the latest computer technology with an old-fashioned sandpit to create a tool that can predict how climate change can transform civilisations.

The Digital Sandpit allows archaeologists at the University to create their own 3D environments, onto which are projected vegetation, animals and humans, whose movements and actions are run by a computer algorithm. The team can then use the computer to raise or lower the temperature of the virtual landscape, leading to swathes of land being covered in snow or drowned by rising water levels.

They can use this to see how these changes affect vegetation, animal populations, and the impact on the food chain.

Despite the impressive technology behind the piece of kit, it is quite lo-fi. A wooden sandpit and bag of B&Q sand is the backdrop for the projections, made by a device from an XBOX 360 games system, hooked up to an everyday desktop.

The computer programme means archaeologists can develop physical environments to visualise the impact of complex equations, and it was on show at a recent open day to inspire future students.

It will be used as part of a major university project, to discover the secrets of Doggerland – a lost area of land that was once part of Britain but now lies beneath the North Sea. The team has spent years studying the site, and the former human settlements there. The sandbox will be used to re-create that site, and look at different theories on how life there changed with the changing climate.

The projections in the Digital Sandbox even show the diet of the virtual humans, reflecting whether they eat vegetables and fruit, deer or fish, meaning the team can see how the environmental changes can lead to major changes in the lifestyles of people living in those areas – with hunters becoming fishermen when animal populations fall due to rising water levels.

Although other similar bits of kit exist at other institutions, the Bradford team is one of the few to use it in this way.

Dr Philip Murgatroyd, Project and Modelling Manager at the School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences, said: “It helps us to visualise complex simulations. A lot of time in this field you don’t have something graphically you can show people. We hope that when people see this they realise just how closely humans and their environment interact, and how a small change can really alter environments.”

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